This native North American perennial bears showy purple, pink, or white daisylike flowers with large, orange-brown centers. Echinacea, derived from the Greek echinos, meaning “hedgehog,” refers to the flower’s bristly center.
Common Names: Echinacea, Kansas Snakeroot, Pale Coneflower, Purple Coneflower
Description: Sturdy stems 2 to 3 feet tall; coarsely toothed leaves up to 8 inches long; composite flowerhead with cone center surrounded by purple, pink, or white rays
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Flowering: July to August
Parts Used: Roots
Range/Habitat: Native to North America; found in open woodlands, roadsides, and fields
Echinacea is among the most important plants in Native American traditional medicine. Fragments of the plant have been found in archaeological digs of Native American sites dating back to the 17th century. The herb was used as an analgesic to relieve pain and as a treatment for coughs, infections, colds, flus, snakebites, and superficial sores and wounds.
Three species, primarily, are used in herbal medicine: Echinacea angustifolia, recognized by its narrow leaves; Echinacea pallida, known by its narrow, drooping petals; and Echinacea purpurea, which is also often grown for its ornamental blooms. Echinacea roots, flowers, leaves, and seeds contain polysaccharides and other compounds that stimulate your immune system; the compounds in plants of this genus also have antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
Clinical studies with some commercial preparations of echinacea have shown its ability to help reduce the symptoms and duration of upper respiratory infections and to prevent the common cold. The herb is most effective if taken during the earliest stage of infection. A tea made by simmering the root in water for 10 minutes, then straining it, can be taken up to three times a day to treat colds and flu. Echinacea salves and tinctures are excellent for healing skin wounds, cuts, canker sores, leg ulcers, and burns.
Caution: People sensitive to other plants in the aster family could experience an allergic reaction to echinacea. When purchasing echinacea products, choose those made with cultivated plants, as some species are endangered in the wild.
Echinacea Spray for Sore Throats
This spray is cooling, refreshing, and healing for sore and/or infected throats.
¼ cup echinacea tincture
⅛ cup vegetable glycerin or honey
⅛ cup water
1–2 drops peppermint essential oil
To make the spray:
Mix together the echinacea tincture, glycerin, and water. Add the peppermint essential oil drop by drop until the spray has the right flavor for your taste. Pour into a spritzer bottle.
Spray directly into the back of the mouth, toward the throat, once every half hour or as often as needed.
CHOOSING AN ECHINACEA
Avoid wild-harvested echinacea unless you know and trust your source to be a responsible and ethical steward of wild populations. Because of the huge demand over the past 40 years, corresponding to growing concerns of immune issues worldwide, echinacea is being poached unmercifully from its wild habitats. Several species are already at risk or endangered. The good news is that most of the echinacea available these days comes from organically cultivated sources. Currently several medicinal varieties are available; I suggest Echinacea purpurea because it’s easily grown, effective, and more common than the other species.
The beautiful flowers of Echinacea purpurea are not only medicinal, but a feast for the spirit as well.
Whole-Plant Echinacea Tincture
If you make only one tincture for winter, this should be it.
To make the tincture:
In the late spring, gather fresh echinacea leaves, pack them loosely in a widemouthed glass quart jar, and add enough 80-proof alcohol (brandy, vodka, or gin) to cover by 2 to 3 inches. Place in a warm spot, and shake daily.
When the buds begin to ripen on the echinacea plants, gather several young buds and add them to the jar with the echinacea leaves.
Later in the season, when the flowers bloom (but before they are past their prime), gather several flowers and add them to the jar. Top off with alcohol, if necessary, so that it remains 2 to 3 inches above the plant material. If the jar is overfull, you can transfer its contents to a half-gallon widemouthed jar. Continue to shake daily.
In fall, when the plants start to die back, their energy returns to the roots. On a late-fall afternoon, dig up an echinacea plant and harvest the roots. The plant should be 2 to 3 years old, which will make the root mature enough to have good medicinal potency but not too woody.
Clean the roots well, scrubbing, peeling, and breaking them apart as necessary. Then chop them into small pieces and add to the tincture jar, topping up the alcohol as necessary.
Let the tincture steep for 3 to 4 weeks. Strain, then bottle. A quart or more of whole-plant echinacea tincture should be enough to get you through a long winter.
For an acute situation, for example to ward off an infection, cold, or flu, take ½ teaspoon every hour. If this dosage doesn’t seem to be working and you feel the immune system could use an additional boost, increase the dosage to ½ teaspoon every half hour. Decrease the dosage as you return to wellness.
To treat a chronic infection with echinacea, take ¼ to ½ teaspoon two or three times daily for 2 weeks. Discontinue for 1 to 2 weeks, then repeat the cycle as needed. While I prefer a fresh whole-plant tincture, you can also make tincture from dried echinacea.
PLEASE NOTE: Taking large amounts of echinacea for any length of time is not recommended, not because the plant is toxic but because it’s generally not necessary and can even be counterproductive. High dosages are used only to mobilize the immune system to fight off the initial acute stages of infection. You should decrease the dose within 24 hours.
Dr. Kloss’s Liniment
This, my absolute favorite liniment, is a formula handed down by a famous old herb doctor, Jethro Kloss, in his classic 1939 book, Back to Eden. Dr. Kloss’s liniment is useful both as a disinfectant and for inflammation of the muscles. I have been using this liniment for over 30 years and have found it to be absolutely the best disinfectant. Quite truthfully, you shouldn’t be without it.
1 ounce echinacea root powder
1 ounce goldenseal root powder (organically cultivated)
1 ounce myrrh gum resin powder
¼ ounce cayenne powder
1 pint rubbing alcohol
To make the liniment:
Follow the directions for making a tincture. Because this liniment contains rubbing alcohol, be sure to label it EXTERNAL USE ONLY.
Either apply directly on wounds or use it to moisten a cotton ball and swab the infected area. Repeat as often as needed until the infection goes away.
“Regular” Echinacea Tincture
If you don’t have a garden or the time to make a tincture from the whole plant, you can make a simple echinacea root tincture that will still be very effective — though perhaps not quite as effective as the whole plant tincture, simply because the different parts of the plant have different strengths of similar properties.
To make the tincture:
Prepare the tincture using fresh or dried echinacea root, following the instructions on this page.
For an acute situation, take ¼ to ½ teaspoon every hour, or as often as needed. For chronic inflammation and infection, take ½ teaspoon three times daily for 2 weeks, then discontinue for 2 weeks (a rest period), and repeat the cycle as needed.
The Two Faces of Echinacea purpurea
Current knowledge about the chemistry and pharmacology of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) helps show why an herb can have multiple effects on the body. We’ve discovered that a plant’s pharmacological effect depends not only on the chemicals present in the herbal preparation, but also on the different targets of a particular chemical.
Purple coneflower has long been used to prevent and treat the common cold. Traditionally, echinacea preparations were made from roots, but more recently, producers have been using the fresh-pressed juice from the flowers. While analyses of the plant’s bioactive constituents are far from complete, scientific studies have consistently shown that different compounds in echinacea preparations stimulated the immune responses of animals — humans included — to viral infections, supporting the traditional use of this herb.
But recent scientific findings show that echinacea preparations could also inhibit some immune cells, possibly adjusting the immune response to an appropriate level. This can be a benefit, since an excess of some immune-regulating chemicals (known as cytokines) in your body after a viral infection can be detrimental to your health.
The bioactive constituents of Echinacea purpurea include alkamides, phenolic compounds, polysaccharides, and glycoproteins, among others. In general, alcoholic tinctures contain higher levels of alkamides and phenolic compounds, while aqueous extracts contain more polysaccharides and glycoproteins. In terms of pharmacological activities, polysaccharides and glycoproteins have been identified as having immune-stimulating activity, while alkamides appear to be anti-inflammatory. Phenolic compounds could work both ways.
While studying the effect of Echinacea purpurea on T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights virus and cancer cells, I found that some of the polysaccharides in the flower tops were able to not only increase, but also decrease the amounts of some cytokines released during a viral attack. Some of our tests suggest that this polysaccharide would be more effective if the preparation were taken before or during the early stage of a viral infection, validating clinical data as well as traditional wisdom about the benefits of early use of echinacea as a plant medicine.
— Fabiana N. Fonseca, PhD
In your garden, echinacea is showy and easy to care for. Its deep taproots make it extremely tolerant of heat and drought.
How to grow it
Echinacea thrives in average, loamy soil in full sun. Sow the seeds in your garden in fall, or indoors in seedling trays in late winter. If sowing indoors, you can improve germination by refrigerating the seedling trays for 4 to 6 weeks before moving them to a bright place. Harvest the roots in fall; fall is also the best time to propagate echinacea by taking root cuttings. Leave the seed heads on the plants to provide winter food for birds.